How Mexican landfills become ganglands

The informal sector plays a big role in Mexico’s waste management. Organised crime and corruption matter very much.
A woman collecting usable items on a landfill on the outskirts of Mexico City in 2016. picture-alliance/AP Photo/Marco Ugarte A woman collecting usable items on a landfill on the outskirts of Mexico City in 2016.

Consumerism, urban sprawl and a fast-paced lifestyle result in the increasing use of single-use products that are discarded immediately. Buyers typically do not consider social and environmental consequences.

This trend is obvious in Mexico. The country generates around 120,000 tons of waste every day. That is an average of 0.95 kilogramme per person. According to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT – Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales), not quite 31 % could be recovered or reused in principle.

However, Mexico’s formal infrastructure is not strong enough to manage the waste appropriately. The nation has 47 waste treatment plants which are located in 43 municipalities in 15 states. The idea is that their staff separate and select waste. However, even these plants only recover a little more than seven percent of the garbage they handle as marketable. That, at least, is what SEMARNAT and the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC – Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático) stated in a joint study in 2020, in which they assessed the state of integrated waste management.

Plastics are of particular concern. ­SEMARNAT reckons that per person, about 50 kilogrammes of plastics are thrown away per year and that the nation consumes 6,000 tons of single-use plastics.

Inadequate infrastructure 

It is hard to tell how accurate the official numbers are, however. Though Mexico has a regulatory framework and public policy instruments for integrated waste management, authorities recognise that this is insufficient. The National Program for Waste Prevention and Management has acknowledged that it neither has an adequate infrastructure nor effective oversight mechanisms.

Adding to the difficulties, the formal waste-management system is fragmented along state and municipal borders. Generally speaking, rural areas and small towns are at a disadvantage, not least because they lack money for major investments and well-organised municipal operations.

In this scenario, the informal sector plays a decisive role, and it does not keep records. By definition, informal businesses operate without much regulation or government oversight. Accordingly, there is no systematic quantification of how much waste is actually recycled.

Not only the true recycling figures are unknown. So is the number of people involved in informal waste management. According to the SEMARNAT/INECC study, between 500,000 and 2 million people are involved. What is known is that, at the bottom of the pyramid, entire families depend on hazardous work. Many of the scavengers remain extremely poor.

Informal waste management is a complex system that includes urban waste collectors, volunteer workers, scrap dealers and scavengers. The informal system recycles raw materials and sells them to businesses. Individuals and groups extract paper, cardboard, plastic and metals from municipal solid waste.

Health hazards

An irritating, though minor nuisance is that some people, who are looking for valuable items in household waste, open garbage bags and scatter what they cannot use on public streets. Such littering, however, can lead to health hazards, though other bad practices are certainly more harmful.

For example, the informal recovery of metals from electronic and electric equipment often causes hazardous pollution. People burn equipment parts without any understanding of the chemical consequences, as the National Programme for the Prevention and Management of Special Handling Waste 2022-2024 has pointed out. This kind of pollution puts human health at risk and causes damage in ecosystems. Obviously, the poor people who do this kind of work are particularly exposed to hazards themselves.

Organised crime

The recycling market and its value chains are vast, so a lot of money is circulating in the informal sector. Organised crime gangs are in control, and corruption matters very much. This is a common phenomenon when business activities take place in black and grey markets. Where the rule of law hardly applies, other forces hold sway.

Cartels decide who gets work in informal waste management. For example, they control who has access to landfills. One consequence is that the people who depend on sorting and collecting items on landfills are entirely at their mercy. Another is that there are only limited options for monitoring what happens on the garbage dumps.

Such information, of course, could help to improve the working conditions. The plain truth is that many thousands of families slave away in hazardous and clandestine conditions on Mexican landfills. Child labour is common. It is culturally ingrained practice, with kids accompanying their mothers and contributing to the family income.

The nation has historically failed the people at the lowest rungs of the waste value chains. They are disadvantaged and vulnerable, forced to live in precariousness. Typically, they are people who have been marginalised in formal labour markets for decades. Many have a history of migration from poor rural areas. Some are the children of scavengers and were born on a landfill.

Government initiatives to improve matters exist, and civil-society organisations are active in this field too. Some progress is being made, but it remains too slow so far. Vested interests that oppose change are only part of the problem. The great challenge is that this is not simply about changing waste-management practices. It is also necessary to generate less waste and to make the remaining waste better reusable.

If change is to prove sustainable, it must be accompanied by broad-based participation. The whole of society must be involved. Mexico needs a comprehensive approach geared to sharing responsibility among municipal authorities, state agencies, private businesses, civil-society organisations and consumers in general.

Pamela Cruz is a project coordinator for Comunalia, the alliance of community foundations in Mexico, and a strategic adviser of MY World Mexico, a nationwide social business that promotes sustainable development and cooperation.

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